"forward' vs "laid back" speakers


Over the past few months I’ve auditioned a number of speakers, with a view—eventually—to replacing my current ones. I’m content with their overall presentation, but they are getting long in the tooth and I’ve also been hankering for a little more bass.

Models that I’ve been able to hear (as for many of us, there are geographical challenges) are, in no particular order, B&W CM10, Dynaudio Excite X38, Vandersteen Treo, Sonus Faber Venere 3.0, Devore Orangutan O/93, Dynaudio Focus 380, Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition, Sonus Faber Liuto. Although not on my list, I also happened to hear along the way Totem Sttaf, Golden Ear Triton 2, Neat Classic Elite SX, and Vienna Acoustics Liszt.

It’s probably naïve of me to say this, but one thing that surprised me was how little my own listening impressions aligned with published reviews that I’d read of these speakers. Another thing that was a little surprising was my eventual ranking of them.

Two caveats in regard to the following observations: (1) de gustibus non est disputandum—these are purely my personal tastes and preferences (which seem to be in a minority); (2) all speakers were driven by highly competent and sometimes megabuck electronics, but I’m not going to get into every variable of the audition, otherwise this post will turn into a short novel.

The most salient characteristic (to me) is that the acoustic presentation of some of these speakers seemed quite forward (row D), whereas that of others was really quite laid back (row M). There was also, quite often, a second correlation between that forward presentation and a (relative) brightness in the treble. As far as I can tell, these features are often preferred and indeed seem to be aimed for in the voicing of many models during their development. To my ears, speakers in this category were the Treos, O/93s, and Veneres. Somewhere in the middle were the CM10s and the Liutos. A bit more laid back were the Dynaudios and the Vienna Acoustics.

I have to say that I like row M. I like the soundstage to start at the plane of the speakers’ drivers, and extend well behind them, with the speakers pulled well out into the room to achieve that sense of depth. And I don’t like bright.

The X38s, which I heard a while ago, were overall “polite”, and now I’m thinking they may not have been fully broken in. The Focus 380 sounded good but somehow a little homogenized or artificial; the timbre and the presentation were pleasant, but it was harder to forget that you were listening to a stereo system. The Baby Grands were a clear favorite among the models so far (only surpassed by the Liszts, as was to be expected). They were natural, relaxed, with all the characteristics I’ve been looking for, save that ultimate few hertz in bass extension.

I conclude from this that I am in a distinct minority. So be it. I haven’t been able to hear the VA Beethoven Concert Grands (that experience suggests should fit the bill), nor any models from Harbeth, Spendor, Silverline, Aerial, or Joseph Audio that I suspect—but cannot be sure—I might also like.

And so the search goes on; paradoxically, my experiences so far lead me to put little to no faith in reviews, but it’s only reviews (and on-line audio forums like this one) that allow me to construct a short-list of what to try to audition in the future.
twoleftears
Room acoustics are a big factor in how speakers sound in many regards. You didn't hear everything in the same room I would assume. Nevertheless I didn't find any of your findings particularly surprising. What will matter is what sounds best to you in your room at home. What the speakers are fed is of course a big factor as well. Just remember that there is more to it than speakers but yes to go into all the details would be hard so best to narrow things down yourself and ask for feedback on specific options perhaps if needed.
>> Models that I’ve been able to hear (as for many of us, there are geographical challenges) are, in no particular order, B&W CM10, Dynaudio Excite X38, Vandersteen Treo, Sonus Faber Venere 3.0, Devore Orangutan O/93, Dynaudio Focus 380, Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand Symphony Edition, Sonus Faber Liuto. <<

Well, it seems that despite your geographical challenges, you've been able to audition 9 or more speakers - and you've "heard" about 4or 5 others. To tell you the truth, I doubt you'd be able to audition any more speakers even if you lived smack dab in the middle of New York City.

And I'm still trying to figure out what is the reason for your post. You clearly know what kind of sound you prefer and you have certainly listened to quite a few speakers. So, what's your question(s) to us???

-RW-
The only truly local speakers were the B&Ws and the Golden Ears. Everything else involved long day-trips or taking advantage of business travel to other cities.

The question (admittedly more implied than stated explicitly) is really there in the penultimate paragraph: given the preferred sound profile that I've tried to describe, in your collective experience do those other brands not yet auditioned offer an acoustic presentation similar to--or that even surpasses--that of the Baby Grands?
Mapman: I heard the Baby Grands in a room approximately 25' x 16', with high ceilings.

My room at home is 16'6" x 14'8", with 8' ceilings. Do you think that will give any more reinforcement to the bass, if I experiment with placement?
Smaller room in general will be easier to "pressurize" for good bass. Of course there is more to each room than size so each case is somewhat unique. Your room is much smaller than the one you heard so keep that in mind. You'll know for sure when you listen and tweak in your room.

If you like a more laid back sound mostly behind the speakers you might want to take a look at the ohm Walsh line which sells direct and offers a lengthy in home audition period.
"And so the search goes on; paradoxically, my experiences so far lead me to put little to no faith in reviews, but it’s only reviews (and on-line audio forums like this one) that allow me to construct a short-list of what to try to audition in the future."

That's exactly how you are supposed to use reviews. You get ideas, and then go and explore them. The only thing I would add to your comments on issues like imaging and staging, is that the electronics have at least as much of an effect in those areas as the speakers.
I like tannoy for the reasons you like Vienna. I too feel I'm in the minority.
What struck me was how "off" (to my ears) a bunch of reviews have been, or how they just omit what I would consider crucial, fundamental characteristics of a speaker's acoustic presentation.

As just one instance, if I had paid any heed to Thomas Norton's recent one of the VA BBGs in Stereopile, I wouldn't even have bothered to audition them.
You're not in the minority, and your experiences mirror those of many of the rest of us. This is the challenge with electronics. If we were evaluating the quality of a pizza, it likely wouldn't matter whether we were evaluating a particular pizza while sitting in a dining room or on someone's front porch, or whether it was served on stainless steel plates or Japanese porcelain - it's going to taste how it's going to taste. But electronics can't be evaluated in a vacuum - too many variables completely independent of the item in question affect the item in question.

I use reviews to gather ideas, learn about features, and at most to get relative comparisons. If a reviewer is comparing speaker A vs. B in the same room on the same amp, and one is much brighter, that's helpful to me and it gives me a parameter to investigate further. But I've seen forum posts that really highlight how crazy and illogical peoples' evaluations can be. A couple of days ago I read a forum post where someone called one amp exciting and referred to another amp as lifeless - but the two amps were in two different places, and he heard them through two different kinds of speakers!! Even leaving aside the differences in how we ear things individually, think about the insanity of that comparison. So no, it's not surprising that you're hearing very different things than a reviewer in a different room with different ears. Happens to all of us, all the time.
"one thing that surprised me was how little my own listening impressions aligned with published reviews that I’d read of these speakers."

A very astute observation. I think you will also ultimately find that the speakers you end up with in your listening room will sound surprisingly little like they sounded in the dealer's showroom. Sure is an interesting hobby!
-Bob
The number of variables in our hobby is almost infinite. I think a lot of audiophiles have channeled (no pun intended) obsessive-compulsive impulses into the pursuit of their, or somebody else's definition of "the absolute sound."

If I had deep pockets, I likely would be among the "worst offenders." :) Fortunately, I'm usually able to understand and appreciate value, so I tend to keep components that please me for a long time.

I recently auditioned a number of completely different, favorably reviewed speakers in my home based on those reviews. Neither my golden-eared wife nor I could live with them.

This hobby is the most rewarding for me when I can forget about the equipment and simply listen to the music.
I've no doubt you heard what you heard, but really there are far too many variables to really make any definite conclusions. As others mentioned, upstream electronics and especially the room can trump what you think you're hearing from the speakers themselves. For example, Vandersteen speakers pretty much all do a great job with throwing a deep, layered soundstage. So your experience of them being more forward sounding makes me really question that room and setup. And Vandy's in particular will be very sensitive to proper setup.

Anyway, given your preferences you should manufacture a business trip or whatever's necessary to get to a good Joseph Audio dealer. Reference 3A and Verity may also be worth traveling to hear. Best of luck in your search.
The Treos were driven by a Sim Moon 600i in a room on the largish size of medium.

What I meant by forward, in particular, was where the soundstage started. On that day the soundstage started several feet out in front of the plane of the drivers, so it felt like you were sitting verrry close. There was definitely depth to the soundstage, and there was definitely bass. It may have been a by-product of the set-up, who knows. The Dynaudio X38s, with all the other parameters exactly the same, sounded a good deal more distant, almost to a fault (not fully broken in?), but in general a bit more space between me and the start of the soundstage is an effect that I personally prefer.

Thanks for the recommendations. Second time Joseph Audio has been mentioned. Just wish there was a store within 3-4 hrs driving (one way!) that carried those three brands.
If you are buying used i would suggest you cut the budget in half and buy two sets of speakers . Listen to them and keep what you like . Then sell the other pair . Once sold use that money and buy another set . Repeat , Repeat ... Eventually you will find the one and have a lot of fun along the way. You will have to get over the fact that spending half of your budget does not necessarily mean you are compromising sound quality vs dollars spent. Same principal for all other components in the system . Living with crappy sound because you spent your whole budget on one piece that does not pan out sucks . Stack the odds in your favor and buy a few of each component .
"What I meant by forward, in particular, was where the soundstage started. On that day the soundstage started several feet out in front of the plane of the drivers, so it felt like you were sitting verrry close. There was definitely depth to the soundstage, and there was definitely bass. It may have been a by-product of the set-up, who knows."

That's the whole system working together and not just the speakers. Another thing worth mentioning is that the speakers may have been wired out of phase. Its very easy to mistake a phase issue with the underlying imaging qualities of the system as a whole. People working in audio stores make mistakes like this all the time. I'm not saying that this is definitely the case, but given your description of the imaging you experienced, something compels me to comment on phase.
I think you have a correct first impression of the vienna's though limited, just like the other speakers. Not everything but you can tell a lot (about tone and timbre and balance) by a quick listen even with sub optimal electronics and a bad set up to see if you want to go further.
I'd say reviews don't even tell you what to go here. They more tell you about the business aspects of reviewer-manufacturer relationships.

Guys on forums? Not much better, everyone owns "the best" til they change, suddenly the old ones have big faults.

Get to as many dealers and audio shows as you can. I have been to dozens of shows and I disagree, you can get an idea at a show. Just because the sound stinks does not mean it's the oft-cited show conditions. Often it is just that the equipment does stink.

Dealers, shows, buy used at market price and then turn them over, just as an above poster said. Buy, listen, sell if you don't like it, repeat, repeat, repeat as necessary. Use your own ears and brain. Far more reliable than going from reviews and posters you don't know with musical tastes you don't know with possible agendas you don't know and whose honesty you don't know.

Too many variables, IMO. My stereo sounds different just changing interconnects. Different rooms sound different also. Speakers not broken in, which some may have been and others not, makes a big difference too. My current speakers went from bright to dull to perfect once broken in. The bass came together and the soundstage got way wider too. I hadn't ever experienced such a dramatic change while a piece of equipment was breaking in. Speaker placement is another variable...

Interesting that is sounds like you prefer laid back, as do I, but the veneres to me sounded more forward, bright, thin, clear...

Was never a fan of Monitor Audio until now and thier Gold and Platinum lines sound great. You might like KEF also...
The most salient characteristic (to me) is that the acoustic presentation of some of these speakers seemed quite forward (row D), whereas that of others was really quite laid back (row M). There was also, quite often, a second correlation between that forward presentation and a (relative) brightness in the treble.
The last sentence in this para says it all for me - what you are listening to is speaker phase distortion & lots of it. This is a classic case. It's an effect of using higher order x-overs in the various speakers you auditioned. Higher order x-overs (like 2nd, 3rd, 4th & higher) impose a large phase shift onto the incoming music signal. This ruins the phase of the original music signal & what you hear as a result is heavily distorted music where the phase relationship amongst the bass, mids, highs is no longer what was read off the program material. In all higher order x-over speakers, the speaker drivers are phase coherent at only their x-over frequency & the moment you go +/- that x-over frequency there is no phase coherency any more.
One thing to remember here - as you go thru the audio frequency range of 20Hz-20KHz there will be phase shift (due to the drivers & the x-over) - that's *not* what I am talking about. What i'm talking about is the phase *difference* between the bass & mids, mids & highs, bass & highs. The high order x-overs destroy this phase relationship & as a result destroy the music coming out of the speakers. For the music to sound correct, the speaker must maintain the phase difference between the bass & mids, mids & highs, bass & highs.
Why am i harping about the phase? Because phase is the independent variable that exists in nature. Frequency is a derivative of phase. Also, during recording music, distance of the artist/instrument from the mic is phase i.e. time of arrival of sound to the mic is phase. if you change that phase relationship, you get different frequencies. And that's what these various speakers you auditioned are doing with their use of higher order x-overs.

if you look at impedance & phase plots of speakers that use first-order x-over circuits, you will notice that the phase remains flatter over the 20Hz-20KHz region & that phase relationship/difference between the bass & mids, mids & highs, bass & highs is maintained over ALL frequencies (yes, ALL) - not just at the x-over frequencies. This is the physics of a 1st-order x-over (& not something that I conjured up). No other higher order x-over has this intrinsic/native property. For this reason, you will find that speakers made with 1st-order x-overs sound more correct.Speakers made with 1st-order x-overs are, what we call, time-coherent (which means that they are both phase coherent & time-aligned all at the same time). Speakers made with higher order x-overs are phase coherent only at their x-over frequencies & still other speakers made with higher order x-overs are time-aligned & phase-coherent at their x-over frequencies.

you wrote that the Vienna Acoustics Baby Grand sounded the best of the lot you auditioned. I looked up a Stereophile review - these speakers use a 1st order (6dB) & a 2nd order (12dB) Bessel x-over. A Bessel filter is also known as a "maximally flat phase" filter. Whoa!! Guess what? Vienna Acoustics used a x-over that tried its very best to maintain the phase of the incoming signal!!! Exactly what I wrote above.
What a coincidence then that it sounded the best!! Not a coincidence at all...... The engineers at Vienna Acoustics seem to have a better understanding that it is indeed phase of the incoming music signal that must be preserved if the music is to sound good.

IMO, speakers even better sounding that the Baby Grands would be 1st-order x-over speakers such as those from Green Mountain Audio (in Colorado Springs/Denver - they might have moved recently), Vandersteen, Sanders Sound Labs. None available in your area from the looks of your OP but you might be able to get a demo if you drive.

As far as I can tell, these features are often preferred and indeed seem to be aimed for in the voicing of many models during their development.
I don't think so but if the speaker designer cannot solve the problem one way around it is to state that this particular distortion is a wanted feature of the design. There you go - now you don't have to solve the problem anymore. Sell it to the unsuspecting public as a "revealing" speaker. total BS!!!

The only way to go is to have a time-coherent speaker. We have discussed this matter on this forum many times starting 2002 (yup, 2002!). This is an awesome thread (& many consider this the best Audiogon thread) that was started by Rbischoff in 2002 about time-coherency & it's important. It came up again very recently in the the superb thread "Sloped Baffle" - pay particular attention to the posts made by Roy Johnson (who owns Green Mountain Audio. you will probably think that Roy J has an agenda to sell his speakers but try to put that in the back of your mind & just read his posts. He does an awesome job of explaining why time-coherency is very important).
http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?cspkr&1403209611&read&keyw&zzsloped=baffle.
in the "sloped baffle" thread, I give the URL for that thread started by RBischoff back in 2002.
Lots of posts for you to read but very much worth it, I think.

Also, there are few members who have been converted to using a time-coherent speaker (after several years of NOT using a time-coherent speaker) by buying DEQX. And, following this wake, there are other Audiogon members who are seriously considering buying DEQX for their systems (convert their respective speakers to a time-coherent version). You can read that discussion & their experiences of being converted to time-coherent speakers in the "IS DEQX a game changer?" thread
http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?ddgtl&1408492712&read&keyw&zzdeqx=a=game=changer
Bombaywalla, Thanks for that informative response!
The best reference for time and phase correct speakers that I know if was in The Audio Perfectionist Journal. Its no longer in print, but it was also released in pdf, so you may still be able to find it. If I still had mine, I would post it for you, but I don't. All the good info is in the first 4 issues that they made available for no cost, as a promotion to get people to subscribe to the Journal. They just go into a level of detail about time and phase that I've never seen anywhere else. Its worth going out of your way to find.
yeah, Zd542, I found the exact link to one of the PDFs of the article you mentioned & it said "link not found". Looks like The Audio Perfectionist removed those articles.
In lieu of that, I offer 2 articles on the subject off Green Mountain Audio's website (no affiliation to this speaker manuf. Used to own his speakers & loved them but do not own his speakers any more. I do believe that he knows what he is doing tho' hence my repeated references to his articles & his products):

[ur]http://greenmountainaudio.com/speaker-time-phase-coherence/>http://greenmountainaudio.com/time-and-phase-coherence/[url]

[ur]http://greenmountainaudio.com/speaker-time-phase-coherence/


Twoleftears, I realize that you asked whether the speakers stated in your penultimate para were worthy of hearing or not & this discussion of time-coherence seems to be at a tangent (it is not once you read & understand), it's worth understanding why the speakers you heard are such a far cry from the rave reviews you read in the magazines & why you felt some speakers were row D & others row M. Once you understand, you might be able to answer your question; if not, you'll be able to make better judgements on speakers the next time around.
I read you cleary- Twolftears.
I have been subscriber to both TAS & Stereophile since 1993. Over these years I have read too many articles on "great" speakers. (2) disappointments that come to my mind Aerial & Revel. I tried to get "into" these lines, sorry but, they are over-priced junk IME.

The remedy, is to go out into the marketplace and listen, listen, listen w/ your own ears!
Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
03-19-15: B_limo
Bombaywalla, Thanks for that informative response!
Thanks B_limo, glad that you found it useful.
If you have a chance give the Nola KO a try ;I moved from Soundlab M2's to them and am very pleased.
I run tubes but also put my Roland Model 6 Monoblocks on them and they sounded excellent with both.
What amps are you going to be using or will you be replacing them after you purchase the speakers?
I don’t know if anyone will be interested in this ongoing saga, but here’s an update.

I recently was able to audition a bunch more speakers: the VA Beethoven Concert Grand, Focal Aria 926, Harbeth Super HL5 Plus, PMC Twenty 24, PMC Twenty 23, PMC Fact 8 (briefly), and Chapman T-5.

I was able to audition the Concert Grands alongside a pair of Baby Grands, which was an interesting experience. The CGs obviously went deeper, but not as deep as the increased number, size and enclosure of the bass drivers would have led me to expect. The CGs were also the more revealing, analytical speaker. As usual, against my expectation, I ended up preferring the Babys: they drew me into the music, the experience, more, they put it all together whereas the Concerts were kind of teasing it apart.

I liked the Focals more than I expected to. Their presentation is different in ways that I find difficult to describe. The perspective is closer, and there’s something about the timbral profile too. Bass extension was good, and you could definitely hear into the music. Listened to on their own, I think they could be more than satisfying; auditioned shortly after the VAs, I preferred the Beethovens.

The Harbeths were a real surprise. I don’t want to use the word bright, so let’s just say that they were a lot less warm, less mellow and less forgiving than I’d expected. I didn’t listen to them very long, because frankly I wasn’t enjoying the experience, although the bass extension was a pleasant surprise (specs really tell you very little). The salesperson said that in his view the Super HL5 Plus had the least warm/mellow/etc. sound of all the models in the Harbeth range.

The Chapmans were good all-rounders. I couldn’t really fault them. Imaging, sound-staging, bass, timbre, etc. Perhaps it was the room, perhaps me, perhaps the equipment (Marantz and Rogue), but ultimately they didn’t draw me in. Still, they’re an impressive speaker and a definite dark horse.

And so on to the PMCs. I really liked the 23s and the 24s. Again, they did everything well, obviously more bass extension on the 24s, and they did draw me in with their musicality. Perhaps a little less so than the Baby Grands, but the 24s made up for that when listening to full-scale orchestral music. The more expensive Facts I didn’t care for as much, more analytical/neutral, and hence—for me—less musical.

The PMC Twenty 24s and the VA Beethoven Baby Grands are the winners in my own, subjective ranking. There are plenty of other makes and models out there at this price point that I haven’t been able to audition, but that’s the reality of the situation. Spendor, Totem, Aerial, come to mind. And so it goes.
Nice post. I love hearing people's impressions of various products.
Twoleftears, a friend and I have been on speaker quest for the last couple of months in the Pacific Northwest and have come to some similar observations as yours relative to forward and recessed presentations. Another observation is the number of speakers that have a rather boxed in sound regardless of the presentation. We have listened to speakers up to $30K together or individually from Focal, Wilson, B&W, Magico, Rockport, Sonus Faber, Vienna Acoustics, Ariel, Kef, Harbeth, Chapman, PMC. My buddy heard the Dali Epicon 2's in Portland and really liked them except for the lack of bass extension so he indicated the 6's deserve a listen. Also the new Devore Gibbon X and new Focals will be up for an audition. So far my all around pick is the Vienna Liszt. It does everything I want and will be the one to knock off from the top spot.
Interesting. Quite a quest! And I totally agree with your--for the moment--conclusion. At twice the price point that I was looking at, the Liszt is extraordinary: it's more like a much, much bigger brother to the Baby Grands than it is a bigger brother to the Concerts.

Have you heard the PMC Twenty 26s?--might be worthwhile checking out.
+1 Mapman. Always interesting to hear honest, first-hand impressions. Where I might differ, though, is that I don't find treble definition to necessarily correlate with depth of soundstage as you mentioned earlier. I've heard bright-sounding speakers with great depth and more laid back speakers where the soundstage was more upfront in the closer rows with less apparent depth. Also, it sounds like you're in an area with a lot of dealers, so I'd highly recommend going to hear Joseph Audio and Reference 3A if you can. Great all-around speakers IME. Last, the differing quality of dealers paired with different associated equipment and rooms make it very difficult to make any definitive assessments. If you find an experience at a dealer significantly deviates from what you read in two or more reviews, I'd question what I heard at the dealer.
Twoleftears, we need to listen to the PMC 26's. I had previously heard the Fact 8 and it was nice but didn't knock my socks off. Mapman has good points to make and I was using a generalization in a broad sense. Also, we have been hauling my friends Devialet integrated around to at least take one of variables out of the picture. You still have the the speaker cables and different rooms to deal with, but at least we are getting a sense of the different flavors.
Good to know the PMC 24's are good on orchestral. thanks !